An interview with SFSC’s incoming president
AVON PARK - Thomas Leitzel believes his role as the fourth president of South Florida State College will be to preserve the college’s well established culture while looking for future progress and great opportunities. When looking at new programs or initiatives his “litmus test” is simple, Leitzel explained, “I always ask, ‘is it good for our community and is it good for our students?’” Highlands Today spoke by telephone with Leitzel who will be departing from his current position soon as president of the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Beaufort, S.C. He starts July 1 at SFSC, succeeding Norm Stephens who is retiring June 30.“It’s a great opportunity; I am really excited about this; it’s just going to be fun for all of us,” Leitzel said. “South Florida State College has great leadership and I am so fortunate; I stand on the shoulders of great leaders who preceded me and that’s in Dr. Stephens and Dr. [Catherine] Cornelius, both of whom live in the community.” Q: Did you know about SFSC or the Heartland area before you learned of the job opening? A: Florida has a very good system of higher education, Leitzel said. He stayed in touch with people he had worked with who are now in Florida. Also, his wife’s family lived in the Sarasota area so he was very familiar with “kind of the area,” Leitzel noted. “When I knew I was going to be a candidate, my wife and I took a weekend trip,” he said. “We looked at the area; we explored and it’s a wonderful place.” The talent at the college and in the district, the three counties the college serves, is very impressive, Leitzel said. Q: Coming from your present institution in the Beaufort area of South Carolina to SFSC, which serves the Heartland of Florida, do you view it as a big difference in demographics and economics? A: “Not necessarily totally different,” Leitzel responded. “I am in the coastal region of South Carolina and the towns here are Hilton Head Island and Beaufort, which are coastal communities, but my college right now serves four counties in southeastern South Carolina and they are rural, they are very rural in their nature and so there is not that much of a change in the topography. The industries are different, but one of the great things that I like about South Florida State College is the opportunities that exist for agricultural enrichment, he said. That can happen through bio-sciences. “The whole area, I think, just holds great potential where we as communities can lead to make a difference and bring prosperity to the entire region,” Leitzel said. Q: Have you already identified any particular changes you would like to make or challenges you will focus on? A: In terms of change, “No,” Leitzel responded. “While I am a change agent, I don’t think there is too much that needs changing and it’s important to preserve a culture because obviously under exemplary leadership the college has a well established and grounded culture, and what I want to do is preserve that culture and look for future progress and those are great opportunities that will emerge through connections that we have at the college in the community. “It will be very important for the next president to get to know the leaders in the community as we formulate our plans together, be it from the business perspective or even from economic development,” he said. Q: What do you believe was your major accomplishment at Technical College of the Lowcountry? A: “We crafted, at my current college, a vision for where we want to take the college,” Leitzel responded. “We developed some very strong strategic plans and we capitalized on funding opportunities both in private and federal grants that got us some of the resources that we can use to put towards some of the initiatives in the strategic plan. In this day and age funding is so critical and it is not coming from traditional means so it really takes a creative mindset to find niche funding opportunities, he said. “That’s where you really rally together with your community and say ‘where are we going to go and how are we going to get there?’” he said. “So I always look at things and say, ‘How will it be administered and how will it be funded.’” Q: SFSC recently started a bachelor’s degree program and is looking to add more four-year degree programs, does your present college offer bachelor’s degrees? A: No, the Lowcountry is a two-year comprehensive community college, he said. “I worked in the university system before both at the undergraduate and graduate levels so my experience spans community colleges as well as four-year institutions and a university so I have that experience in all of those dimensions of higher education.” Q: Do you have a mantra, philosophy or motto by which you go about your efforts in education or dealings with people? A: Leitzel said he didn’t have specific saying or maxim, but said, “I really depend very strongly on a team. I am very team oriented because it just doesn’t occur through one person.” It’s bigger than that and that’s what is fun about working with talented people who are all vested in the best interest of the community and the students, he said. “I am excited to get started,” Leitzel said.